Self-harming or risky behaviour

Self-harm is when a child intentionally damages or hurts their body. It can become addictive because of the natural pain-relieving endorphins that are released when people hurt themselves, which can give a temporary sense of relief.

Each child’s relationship with self-harm is complex and different. It often happens during times of anger, distress, fear, anxiety, loss or depression.

It can also be a coping strategy for:

  • dealing with difficult situations
  • changing emotional pain into physical pain
  • communicating distress about something in a non-verbal way
  • attempts to relieve feelings of numbness, anger or aggression

Self-harming and risky behaviours can also be a way for a child to punish themselves for feelings or behaviour that they think are their fault, or because they have a very negative self-image.

Spotting the signs

Self-harm can include:

  • self-cutting
  • burning
  • scratching
  • biting
  • hair pulling
  • head banging

Risky behaviour

Risky behaviour can sometimes be a form of self-harm, although it is often misinterpreted or overlooked. All children will take risks and learning how to manage them is an important part of development. But when risk-taking is persistent, extreme, age inappropriate, or compromises a child’s safety and wellbeing, it can be a way of communicating distress, or highlighting that a child is struggling, or using risk-taking to lift their mood or distract/punish themselves in some way.

Risky behaviour can take many forms including:

  • persistently challenging behaviour
  • truancy
  • online risky behaviour such as sharing personal information, developing online (and offline) relationships with strangers; playing games rated for much older children; mixing with older peers or involvement in potentially abusive relationships
  • eating disorders
  • sexualised behaviour
  • taking other risks that compromise physical safety or excessive sensation seeking
  • taking illegal drugs or excessive amounts of alcohol
  • attempted suicide

Some risk-taking and sensation-seeking may be a sign of other underlying needs such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, behaviour problems or speech and communication needs.

Find out more about self-harming and risky behaviour

MindEd is a free educational e-learning resource for professionals on children and young people’s mental health. The following session aims to help staff better understand children’s self-harming behaviours.

  • Self-harm and risky behaviour: provides the background to self-harm in children and teenagers, common associated conditions and approaches to managing it.

Top Tips

1

If a child is self-harming, say something.

Doing nothing is the worst thing you can do – talking about it won’t encourage more self-harm. Although you’ll want to tell a child to stop self-harming, it can be just as useful to show concern for them in the first instance.

2

Listen.

It may take a few invitations to talk before a child feels able to risk sharing with you, but the most important thing you can do is listen. 

3

Talk.

When the child is ready, make a plan and discuss and agree it with them. This might include setting aside another time to listen. Action what you’ve agreed and keep the child informed; explain if you don’t manage to do something.

4

Speak to colleagues and to CAMHS professionals for advice and referral.

Consult the child’s parents/carers, and explain to the child why you’re doing this. Give them choices about how you might tell their parents/carers.

5

Concerned about suicidal thoughts?

Most self-harm isn’t linked to suicidal thoughts, but if you are worried about a child, contact your designated safeguarding lead and refer to our advice on what to do if you are concerned about a child.

What schools can do

Thoughts can really influence and affect our emotions and moods. However, many children may not be aware when this is happening to them. Some will become overwhelmed by thoughts and emotions. 

A number of universal and targeted school-based programmes and PSHE resources can prevent children being overwhelmed by thoughts and emotions helping them learn effective coping skills to express their feelings, develop coping skills and manage life’s ups and downs. These programmes also help children connect with, label and express emotions in a healthy way which is an important protective factor. 

Positive relationships in the classroom/school that are built on trust, safety and security promote pupil wellbeing and help children feeling overwhelmed by thoughts or emotions – encouraging them to open up and talk. 

Some children will also need a little extra help either through school pastoral/counselling support, through discussion with your school nurse or through referral to community-based support.

Concerned about a child?

If you are worried that a child is at risk involve your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority who will contact the parents/carers and other services as necessary. If the child is at immediate risk, ensure that they are taken to their GP or A&E as a matter of urgency, depending on the severity of the concern.

Read more

Resources

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Overwhelming emotions and self-harm

Practical resources for children and young people to help them manage overwhelming emotions and...

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Family Lives helpline

Family Lives helpline

Confidential and free helpline offering advice, guidance and support on any aspect of parenting and...

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YoungMinds Parents' Helpline

YoungMinds Parents' Helpline

Free, confidential and expert advice for parents, carers and guardians.

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Sesame Street in Communities: emotions

Sesame Street in Communities: emotions

A range of free information resources for parents on how to support children’s understanding and...

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YoungMinds Parents' Survival Guide

YoungMinds Parents' Survival Guide

Webpage covering most concerns about child/youth mental health, with information on specific issues...

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Childline helpline

Childline helpline

Free online messaging, counselling and helpline service for children.

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Childline toolbox

Childline toolbox

Toolbox of games and activities (e.g. a wall of expression) which help children articulate how they...

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Understanding self-harm for school staff

Understanding self-harm for school staff

Podcasts and videos on children and young people’s mental health for non-specialist staff working in...

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